The first feature film from The Rumpus, directed by Stephen Elliott, based on the novel Happy Baby. Read more
This project was successfully funded on December 12, 2012.
We wrapped Happy Baby the movie at 4:30a.m. six days ago. On the last there night was a downpour, and the car we were using in every shot broke down, and we were kicked out of our holding, twice. Holding is where the cast and crew go. Like, when you're outside in the rain shooting through the driver's side of a car that won't move and fifteen or more production people have to be somewhere. If the weather's really nice you can do it outside, hence, Los Angeles. But not in the cold and pouring rain.
I wanted to talk about everything that went wrong on this movie, because it didn't make sense. So many things went wrong, all the horrible, unexpected things, and yet I think the movie is so good. The performances are amazing across the board. And the cinematography is beautiful.
I feel there is a lesson in here, but I'm not sure what it is. How could so much go wrong and still things be so right. I was told over and again that we couldn't do a movie this big for a budget this small. The thing is, when someone tells you you can't do something, sometimes they're right. Like, I was thinking of all the awards I stopped applying for because every time I didn't get one I felt bad, and I wanted to believe it wasn't a competition. But of course it was. It's that whole celebrity thing, wanting to believe some people are better than others.
Like, while shooting this movie, we suddenly did a scene in Word Books, Brooklyn, one of the great remaining American bookstores. Rachel was there from the New Inquiry and the girl behind the counter picked up a couple of lines. And they let us in on no notice and for no money with our giant camera and we did a couple of scenes that thread the story beautifully. And, on the bookseller's recommendation, I bought Asterios Polyp, one of the best, maybe the best, graphic novel/comic book I have ever read. And I read it while shooting this movie and it was a thing that kept me sane. A book, and the makeup lady's shoulder. And long talks at the end of the day with the cinematographer.
Asterios was an architect and things went bad. Really what happened was Asterios was a well respected architect, a university professor, but none of his buildings had ever been built. One day he admitted to himself that he was good, maybe even a little talented, but he was no Frank Lloyd Wright. After that it didn't take much for his entire world to come undone. His very existence was predicated on being special. It's much more complicated than that. You should read it.
But how did this movie turn out so well? I mean, it can still be poorly edited, and maybe there are holes in the script I won't realize until I try to drive a truck over them, and maybe there will be problems with music, or something else. But the footage, I am certain, is beautiful. Even if nobody likes the movie and I screw it all up in post-production I present this as a fact.
Here are some things that went wrong: We lost our sound mixer on the second day. We lost four major locations. Mostly friends of mine, mostly because their landlords wouldn't let us shoot in their buildings. Some movies only have four locations. We had a great locations guy and he scrambled and we arrived in other places. But on one of the days we actually arrived at the location, trucks and all, and were told we couldn't shoot, which cost us only a couple of hours because Phil had a hookup just over the bridge in the Bronx in a home filled with first editions by Virginia Woolf and Evelyn Waugh and others. I had to write a line explaining why there were so many books in a crack den.
And there was the time we were shooting in the dungeon and the power went out. The fuse was in the super's office and it was the weekend so we couldn't get to it. We ran extensions up and down the building and finally out the window hundreds of feet while the dominatrix waited in a skin tight latex suit. It was supposed to be a closed set. One actor was tied naked over a wooden horse wearing a latex pig hood, another had white tape over her nipples. But eventually it was just electricians and grips and everyone from the movie working as fast as possible chords running every which way while three naked actors created magic in a maelstrom.
And there were scheduling issues, of course. Too much to go into. How to convene a large group of talented people. There was no money to cover for mistakes. Last night, when the apartment owner was trying to extort us for $600 and it was raining so hard he said, Yeah, it's a lot of money, but you don't want to take all these computers out in the rain. He was talking about data management, which is a big thing with the Red camera. I said, I'm not getting paid. Katch was right there I said, How much are you being paid. She said nothing. April was ten feet away. I asked, Hey April, how much are you being paid. I'm not, she said. And then I walked away. And then he kicked us out of his apartment.
So all these things went wrong and yet we were so supremely lucky. A very good sound mixer stepped in because he'd worked with the DP before and liked him. A friend of a friend gave us her apartment which we shot for five locations over two days. Great actors, talented and dedicated crew. Thinking of it now it reminds me of when I was kicked out of a bad group home and picked up by a better one, which is like getting kicked out of junior college and being given a scholarship to Harvard. Or any of the incidental decisions, even good decisions that didn't seem important at the time, that led to beautiful things. I know what luck is, and I know bad luck too. I once had a string of good luck that lasted ten years. Luck is as clear to me as an unobstructed view of a mountain. What if, for example, I had hired someone different to do the art, or if the first cinematographer hadn't quit, leaving room for Adrian Correia to step in. Without Adrian there is no movie. That's luck. The saying goes: Be luck available. But being available to luck is no guarantee. That's like walking around with an umbrella thinking you're available to rain.
Real luck is the day you shit your pants but for some unknown reason you packed an extra pair of pants in your bag. Those extra pants, that's 'Luck available.' That's what people really mean when they say you make your own luck.
Luck, in this case, is people. The costume girls and camera boys and scripty. A great assistant director always making everyone laugh. Great production team and volunteers. And strangely great catering from David who would drive up from New Jersey and feed the entire crew breakfast and lunch for $9 a person. He'd make omelets to order and pan fried fish right in front of you. It didn't make any sense.
When you write something and someone reads what you've written into a camera and makes it better than when you wrote it, that's the only thing I can think of that I know for sure is love. When that happens you can literally feel your heart swell in your chest. And if you're overly analytical, like me sometimes, you think, Fuck, I might have cast another actor and I wouldn't be having this moment. You might think — in the best times, and really, shooting Happy Baby, however it turns out in the end, was the very best times — I almost missed this.
So there's that little piece of perfection, in an otherwise imperfect world.
1. My Adidas - Run DMC: The kids are ten years old, smoking in a park. The Asian child says to young Theo, Mrs. Smith is fucking hot, I'm going to fuck her. Theo says, How are you going to do that, she's married? The children are adorable, the weather is perfect. Why does he have to be Asian, someone asks, and I explain there's an undercurrent of racism in the movie and the father delivers a line in a scene later referencing Theo's Asian friend, but really it's because my best friend growing up was Korean. He was a year older than me and he smoked first, ran away from home first, had sex first. He was a gorgeous kid, far too pretty for his own good. Sometimes I was blamed for his actions, like I was the bad influence. I've always looked like that. One time his father chased me in his taxi, driving up onto the lawns. Getting out of his car carrying a gun. I jumped the fence and got away but he corned my friend Roger, who had a broken arm, and asked where I went. J. and I both ended up in group homes, wards of the state.
In the late 80s My Adidas was the song. Especially in 1987. I played the song for the children. This is what you're listening to, I explained. This is your music. Baby Theo asked me if Adidas paid Run DMC to write that song. It's not like that, I said. After this song ghetto royalty wore Adidas track suits. They'd mug you in the winter and take your shoes. Run DMC was managed by Russell Simmons, I said. You know who that is? They didn't, but they liked the music.
2. I'm Bad - LL Cool J: I'm the pinnacle, that means I reign supreme, and I'm notorious I'll cross you like a jellybean. I'm bad.
Same scene. We're by the highway. Other children are gathering near the monkey bars. Marriage doesn't mean anything, the Asian kid says, people just get married for tax reasons. This was the song we played when the group home was invited to a private summer camp in 1988. When they saw us they decided to put us all in a single cabin on the edge of the woods. There we drank day and night. We took acid. Bonehead Tony pulled a knife on another child and had to be sent home. Brian took a girl's virginity, or she gave it to him. Maybe she threw it at him. Brian and Larry got in a fist fight and Brian got the worst of it. Paul smacked around some of the regular campers. I played chess with the children from the private schools in Skokie. Someone said I didn't seem like the other kids from the group home, but I was.
3. Mmm Papi - Britney Spears: It's 2009, we're at a party. On the wall hangs a sign that reads— Together, We Did It, Again. Theo, 30 years old, is having a conversation with Eddie, a partner at the law firm where his wife works. Eddie and Zahava are having an affair. Eddie offers unsolicited advice on how Theo can keep his wife. Be careful, he says, you'll lose another one.
That would be pretty inconvenient for you, Theo responds. I asked all the extras to dance to Mmm Papi in the first scene. Now see I'm Mami, and that makes you Papi. I could have chosen a song from Blackout, my favorite Britney album, but that was two years earlier. It was 2009, it had been years since Britney lost it for the world on the MTV awards. I thought she was perfect that night, slinking around a pole on the other side of everything. Backup dancers trying to obscure the mess we'd fallen in love with. Circus is considered Britney's comeback album. But I didn't want her to come back. I wanted her to say there. Except we can't stay there. That's why so many authors only write one, maybe two, great books.
4. For No One - Suzzy Roche & Lucy Wainwright Roche: This is one of the only "good" songs on this album, other than My Adidas. In truth I have terrible taste in music. For No One is a cover of the Beatles song, but it's actually better. It's so beautiful you could cry. Slower maybe. The vocals carry across the piano like faeries. In her eyes you see nothing, no sign of love behind the tears. I saw them play the song at John Wesley Harding's Cabinet of Wonders and spent almost an hour tracking it down online. Because it's what's playing when Joe catches Petey peeping on his girlfriend. Joe is a monster of a man and Petey loves Maria. Joe beats him halfway to death, ending the scene in the alley by breaking a bottle over Petey's head.
Petey is played by Adam Busch.
5. Gangsta's Paradise - Coolio: This is the worst song on this album not recorded by Nickleback. On it Coolio raps over Pastime Paradise by Stevie Wonder. There's going to be a fight in the yard. It's 1995 and there's a new inmate from the upper ranks and the soldiers are going to be expected to perform. I've been spending most my life living in a gangsta's paradise.
Theo is sure he's going to die. He waits for Larry's blade while the kids start to circle. We had four stunt performers on set and over 40 extras. They're all wearing yellow shirts with animals representing their age. Suddenly a child rushes into the crowd and jumps over another boy, punching him in the face. And where are the guards? The guards are gone, they are gone. Actually, we have a shot of a guard watching the boys swarm from a second floor window. It looks like the Battle of Algiers. I couldn't believe we pulled it off. A boy gets stabbed three times. Theo gets punched and pulled back to his feet by Marco. Marco goes down on one knee as if in prayer. It was the same year as Fantasy by Mariah Carey.
6. Boombastic - Shaggy: Same year. I don't even like reggae. I didn't want the kids to think of this song as they streamed into the yard, but on the walk from my place to set this is what I listened to. I had forgotten this song. In real life I was listening to Soul Coughing and G. Love And Special Sauce. 1995 was my stripper year. The summer of Ruby Vroom. The fall of my overdose. Soul Coughing was the best band in the world but I never saw them live. G. Love wasn't the same, though he had his moments. But this Chicago, is not Chicago. A man cuts in half, just like he snaps a pencil.
So far there hasn't been a good reason to play Soul Coughing on the set of Happy Baby. Theo's too young in 1995. He wouldn't appreciate, or be exposed to it. 1995 is a tough year for Theo. He's in detention, then a group home, then the streets. He doesn't know anything about A man, drives a plane, into the Chrysler building. And Boombastic, by Shaggy, is everywhere.
7. Rockstar - Nickleback: Nick Flynn and I exchanged mix CDs and I included a Nickleback song. He's still giving me a hard time about it. I know it's terrible. Rockstar is the number one song on my Bad Songs To Feel Good About mix. Now I have an excuse for it since it's the song they're playing inside the Pine Lodge. Joe's waiting at the door, checking ID's. Theo is wading toward him across a giant parking lot. It's late at night and it's as if Theo is crossing black lake to the bar at the end of the world. Maria's inside, like a princess in a cage. Petey's in the hospital with two broken legs and a broken nose. Theo doesn't love Zahava and she doesn't love him back. I'm going to trade this life for fortune and fame, I'll even cut my hair and change my name.
Joe appraises Theo, a smile spreading across his face slowly like an oil spill. Didn't think I'd see you again, he says. Maria said you were a coward and wouldn't have the guts to come around.
Maria knows me best, Theo responds.
8. Darling Nikki - Foo Fighters: I guess it's a movie of covers. It's after the fight, Theo and Petey, each all of sixteen, are back in their room. There won't be school tomorrow. An inmate was left lying in the yard, a pitchfork carved into his chest. Theo's happy to be alive, Petey's happy that Theo is paying attention to him for the first time. This is like the heavy metal version of a great song. She'll sure enough show you how to grind. We're dancing around the room as the guitars get louder, crazier, harder to place. The drums are going apeshit, Petey's shaking his idiot head. Adrian's trying to get lights set, change the camera lens. There is work to be done. Theo's jumping up and down. The lights went out and Nikki started to grind!
9. What It's Like - Everlast: This is the best song on my Bad Songs To Feel Good About mix, a mix I've been plundering on the set of this movie. Whitey Ford Sings The Blues is a great album, and I don't care what anybody says. Theo's getting out today. Ben Peterson asks him if he's ready, puts the handcuffs on him, hits the intercom, Release, one custody. They head to the bucket room. The guard gives Theo his clothes back, including a silver dollar necklace that belonged to his mom. My mom had one of those. Different from this one. My mother's was a "proof" condition Eisenhower silver dollar on a chain I gave her when I was ten. Theo's necklace is an Indian head, pure silver from the 1920s.
Anyway, this is the music of the boy leaving the detention center. You don't hear it, and he doesn't hear it. But this is his mood. He wasn't supposed to be there this long. It was a three to twenty-one day temporary placement. But paperwork got lost, caseworkers quit. There were budget cuts. Truth is it costs the same to keep him in detention as the group home. He stayed in detention almost a year, just like my friend Jay. Jay was sixteen and got locked up for setting fire to a church and spent a year waiting for a downstate placement. You could say he deserved it. He was a racist, kind of a bully. A practicing satanist. But he wasn't the worst kid in there; not by a long shot. I think I found at one point the state was paying $34 a day to keep me in the home and I offered to take half and they'd never hear from me.
Theo goes back up the stairs, caseworkers hand on his shoulder, down toward the entry-way, and then out into the world.
Then you really might know what it's like…
10. (Bonus Track) Lady - Lenny Kravitz: You've been shooting all day, driving around New York in a 1991 Ford Escort. Alex Karpovsky driving, Eric Nelsen in the passenger seat. Adrian and his first AC in the back seat. You had to sit in the way back, under the hatch, with Matt the sound guy and his equipment. It's so hot. The car dies, starts, dies. Alex is getting frustrated and it's great because he's forgetting his performance, he's becoming a caseworker delivering a child and he has other things on his mind, like the line of cars screaming behind him. But in the back it's so hot and you have to keep all the windows up for sound while the actors smoke cigarette after cigarette.
It's a full twelve hour day and you hang out for a half hour of unloading. Get the actors to read wild lines you know you'll never use because they'll never compare to the dialogue delivered in the moment. You're not a big believer in ADR. Better to not understand the dialogue then mistake the intent. Anyway, you're meeting your girl at the restaurant. You thought it was a block away but it's more like half a mile. Anyway, you've already got your Bad Songs To Feel Good About queued up and you don't have time to search for that other playlist, the Songs Steve Is Listening To Now playlist. Plus, you've always kind of loved Lenny Kravitz, even while joking that Kravitz was a verb which meant "to steal or borrow liberally from other musical genres." It's not Kravitz best, not by a long shot. That has to be Let Love Rule, doesn't it? But you would never find Let Love Rule on a mix of songs that includes Wanted Dead Or Alive by Bon Jovi. So that's what you listen to. And she makes you feel good, just like a real woman should. Later, maybe tomorrow, you can hear, Love, transcends all space and time. But that's tomorrow. And this is today.